Kid dynamite

Marcell Coetzee has grown into a massive asset for the Springboks, writes RYAN VREDE.

Twenty-eight desperate minutes in Salta underlined just how valuable Marcell Coetzee is to the Springboks. Juan Smith was preferred at blindside flank in the starting lineup but struggled after four years out of the international game and against an Argentina side growing in their belief that they were going to claim their biggest scalp in their history.

Smith subsequently called it his ‘darkest hour’ in a Springbok shirt. Coetzee, still only 23 and in the formative stages of his Test career, replaced him with those 28 minutes remaining and imposed his will on the contest in a manner that underlined the growing view that he will become a very special player.

Be assured, only exceptionally gifted young athletes are capable of influencing the fortunes of a struggling team like that. Coetzee was the defibrillator that revived a dying Springbok cause. He carried, tackled and scrapped ferociously, sending a surge of electricity through his side that sparked the flatline, restored a pulse and ultimately secured a critical victory when defeat seemed certain.

Before that Test there were questions around his selection and value to the Springboks and there still are, none of them legitimate. His aptitude has been established. A more pertinent debate would be around his deployment – does he start or play off the bench, and if so, in which position? Coetzee’s dynamism is being utilised mostly in the final quarter of Tests, but, in time, he has the potential to become an irresistible force that demands run-on selection. 

Consider also that that aptitude extends to all three back-row positions.

‘I see him competing for the openside and blindside positions equally strongly and, if needed, he can play at No 8,’ Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer says. ‘Marcell reminds me of a young Schalk Burger – he ticks a lot of boxes. He can play towards the ball and is good on the ground. But that’s not enough to be a highly effective Test player.

‘He also carries and defends powerfully and fearlessly, and has a high skill level. His temperament in big matches is excellent, which is key if you want to build a long Test career, and his decision-making under pressure is improving quickly.’

Coetzee’s life journey has helped forge his mettle. Overlooked for the Craven Week side and a junior provincial contract, he joined the Sharks Academy in the hope he’d become a pro through the road less travelled.

‘I gave it one year,’ he told me when we spoke a couple of years ago, ‘then I would have gone to university and my life would have been a lot different.’

Thankfully former Sharks head coach John Plumtree intervened.

‘When you have a trained eye, you know a special talent from a good player,’ Plumtree, who gave Coetzee his break at the Sharks, begins. ‘To establish just how special you have to spend some time with the player and find out what he is made of mentally. I’ve coached talented players who’ve not had the goods upstairs to do justice to their talent. Marcell has it all. His technical ability is matched by his mettle and game intelligence, and his conditioning is always exceptional. More than that, he’s also a bloody good human being.’

Plumtree says Coetzee’s development into an asset for the Springboks is unsurprising but cautions against expecting too much too soon.

‘The South African rugby community sometimes forgets how young he is because he’s been around for a while. We have to judge him accordingly although, knowing Marcell, he won’t want any favours. He has an insanely high expectation of himself and he plays like it’s his last game every time he runs out. I’ve never seen his level drop, whether he’s playing against the All Blacks or some far less glamorous Currie Cup fixture. And as a coach you never have to motivate him. His drive is something to behold.’

Coetzee is already a seasoned Super Rugby player, having contested a final and semi-final, along with numerous other high-pressure encounters. He has a Currie Cup winner’s medal – a final in which he looked at ease in elevated company – and, at the time of writing, had lost only three of the 18 Tests he was involved in – the one in Salta standing out as arguably his finest for the manner in which he dragged the Springboks across the line. That experience is starting to reflect in the consistency and calibre of his performances.

The major threat Coetzee faces is serious injury due to being overplayed (he has played excessively since 2012 without an adequate break). He is on the brink of breaking down and needs to be managed more responsibly in the years ahead if the Sharks and Springboks are to extract the maximum value from him. 

With the World Cup roughly a year away, Coetzee is likely to have secured his ticket to England, where he’ll arrive either as an excellent deputy for Francois Louw or Willem Alberts, or having unseated them through the consistent strength of his performances. He’ll only be 24 at the conclusion of the tournament and will then be placed to lead a new wave of Springboks into 2016 and beyond.

‘He looks like a 50-cap Bok, doesn’t he?’ Plumtree says. ‘When you think of the players who’ve reached that milestone, Marcell is in that bracket in terms of his quality.

‘Only the very, very best make it to 100 and, with the demanding schedule, I think we’ll see less and less players make it that far. But if he stays fit and focused, in 10 years from now we could be paying tribute to Marcell for ticking over into that century of caps.’

– This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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Ryan Vrede